It’s the best way to sea this UNESCO site in the Netherlands, they said. You might see seals, they said. You can bring a DSLR camera with you, they said. The hike won’t be too tough, they said. Let me tell you, none of this is true when you go mudflat hiking in the UNESCO Heritage Site the Wadden Sea. Is the pain you experience during the hike worth it though? Absolutely!
Let me first tell you what makes the area so special in the eyes of UNESCO. The Wadden Sea is one of the world’s seas whose coastline has been most altered by humans, by building systems of dikes on the mainland and low-lying coastal islands. It stretches from the Netherlands in the northwest, past Germany to its northern boundary in Denmark.
The area is typified by extensive tidal mud flats, deeper tidal trenches and the islands that are contained within this, a region continually contested by land and sea. I’ve not visited any of the islands of the Wadden Sea yet, but I have a mind to do so next year.
When you google “mudflat hiking”, one of the first hits tells you that it’s one of the favourite pastimes of the Dutch. I have to say I haven’t met these Dutch people yet. Mudflat hiking is not a leisurely pastime, it’s tough! It’s a hike against time and against nature because one of the elements is making you rush as high tide is approaching and the other one is pulling you tightly into the mud. Not to mention the aforementioned tidal trenches which will always be around thigh-deep trying to make you fall.
Does this sound fun to you, keep reading! Are you not necessarily attracted to the prospect of doing this yourself, but you can’t wait to read about my misadventures, keep reading!
My hike started in Pieterburen. In my previous posts I wrote all about my itinerary of the day – I explored a few cities around the province of Groningen and I visited the seal sanctuary in Pieterburen. I should’ve taken more rest, I should’ve known I’m not really fit enough to be tackling a tough hike after a full day of walking. If I would’ve been able to write this post before my hike, I would’ve known this.
I booked the trip through Wadlopen Pieterburen . It’s imperative to book a tour and to never venture out into the Wadden Sea by yourself. There are different options when booking a tour, I opted for the “easiest walk” which was a two hour walk along the coast near Pieterburen, but I could’ve also chosen a walk to one of the islands.
Before the Hike
I rented shoes from the company who organized the hike, they only cost 7,50 euro and it saved me the hassle of digging for my own shoes in the mud all the time. The mud sucks the shoes in so if you don’t own shoes which are completely stuck to your feet, the option to rent shoes is great.
Another lucky break was the fact that it was raining on the day of the hike. This would normally upset me, and it did when I was waiting for the clock the strike 6pm to start the hike, but the rain made me decide to leave my DSLR in the car. My DSLR would not have survived this trip, so if you’re in a similar situation I would advise you to take a camera you could put into your pockets or to take an underwater camera.
Start of the Hike
After coffee and a piece of pie (my only dinner), we were given instructions where to park our cars. The group was big, which actually slowed us down at the start. I mean I’m not saying I’m a fast hiker, but people dawdled a lot when we were clambering over dykes to get near to the sea.
It seems to be a thing in The Netherlands that when you want to partake in an activity near the sea you’ll have to climb over dykes and push cattle out of the way – in this case they were sheep a few weeks later I went diving in Zeeland where I had to push cows out of the way. Anyway, I digress…
The walk to the sea took more than half an hour, which was long enough to make my mind think I wanted to actually reach the water. Silly me… That’s when we reached the shore and we were told to follow a path in a single line.
You can’t tell, but next to the path there are deep holes in which you can hurt your ankles. At the end of this make-shift path our guides told us something about the flora and fauna of the area, following which they told us to walk fast in order for us to be back in time before high-tide.
They meant it! I’m not good with slippery surfaces and the mud is super slippery! The moment we stepped off the dyke, it became a mess.
I thought we reached the worst of it and my eyes followed the pillars which led the way out into the sea. I thought the pillars marked the end of this hike, I was so wrong because when we reached the end of the pillars after an hour the guides kept racing into the sea!
Mud was followed up by thigh deep water and became mud again. Rain was lashing against my coat. I was getting tired, and every step we took farther out into the sea we’d have to take back towards land again.
Sandbanks and Trenches
After what felt like ages, we reached a sandbank and started walking towards the west. Walking on the sandbank feels like heaven on your feet. It’s just sand so walking is much easier.
However, the sea has to flow somewhere and that’s where these trenches come in; these trenches between the sandbanks there are filled with water and mud. Our guides had to test the trenches with their sticks, because if they were too deep we wouldn’t be able to walk through them.
I was actually scared when I waded through them. I was fully aware there was always a guide behind me so I wouldn’t be left behind, but the moment when we entered the trench it was every group for themselves which meant as a solo traveller I was alone to fend for myself. I’m not good with getting stuck or with slipping, so I felt a panic rise in me every now and then, especially when I looked back towards shore and it was only a distant fleck on the horizon. This wasn’t like the Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn, South Africa though, I couldn’t give up here even though my body was physically tired and my mind was panicking. There were so many times I got stuck in the mud until my knees while I was standing in water that reached my tighs, I had nothing to hold on to and I was trying to balance myself while getting out of the mud at the same time.
At the end I’m proud to say I persisted, and I didn’t cry. As a reward, the clouds parted and the sky showed a beautiful sunset as we were walking back towards the shore.
The walk back was tough on leg muscles I’ve never used before, but once I clambered over the dyke again and saw my car in the distance I was proud of what I had achieved.
The “easy” hike was 9.3 km and took us 2.5 hours, which I would say is a great time considering I had to struggle against the mud trying to pull me in. We finished the hike at 10pm which meant I got in my car around 10.30pm and arrived back in Rotterdam 3 hours later.
What struck me the most was the biodiversity of the hike. We started on a dyke which was grassy and paved, we made our way into the grasslands, only to reach the sea and start stamping around in the mud. I expected to see seals, but that bubble was burst from the start when the guide said seals only stay around sandbanks that are near 2m deep water. I did see a few crabs, so it wasn’t a total loss on animal sightings.
My conclusion about the whole evening is that it’s a tough hike. You can’t get into it expected to have a leisurely stroll around the shore to get informed about the biodiversity of the UNESCO site, instead you’ll be racing against time to make it out into the sea and back to shore in time before the high tide. In a way it’s invigorating albeit a little scary when you get stuck in the mud and no one around you lends a hand. In retrospect it’s a great experience – I wouldn’t have wanted to see this UNESCO site any other way -, but it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into before you sign up!